Monday, March 5, 2012

The Study Group

This time of year, the end of winter into the beginning of spring, where nothing seems to be changing but everything is groaning for it is one of the hardest for me.  As winter yawns on and my gloves become mismatched sets of lost and displaced, my mood plummets.

Try as I might to hold onto the idea that this too shall pass, I find it very difficult not to indulge in my flight response.  I have a really bad flight response. It’s not just a “get out of town for a week to some place warm” flight response but a full-blown flee my life and everything in it response.

In my adult life I have moved back and forth from the west coast to New York five times. Each time it was on my own dime and each time I lacked a clear vision as to why I was moving.  The first time my aunt offered me a job for the summer, I took it and stayed.  The second time I moved to Oregon because I was tired of NYC and I thought Oregon sounded like a cool place to live. The third time, my then new husband wanted to move back to NYC so I agreed. Then we had kids and I thought we should live closer to family, so we moved to California (click here if you want to see what a train wreck that was!). I hated California so we moved back to NYC.  

Before each move I was always overcome with crippling anxiety and frustration. A feeling that nothing was ever going to be OK ever again and there was nothing I could ever do about it. These feelings were so intense I had to get away from them.  Each time I moved hoping that it would make the anxiety go away, hoping that it would be the defibrillator to get my life beating again.

The problem is, you just can’t outrun yourself.  No matter where you go, there you are. And emotional baggage never gets lost. It’s like the world’s most efficient airline employee.  It always makes it to the gate on time. It’s always waiting for you when you land.   

About a year ago, I started to get the urge to flee again and I finally began to wonder about this destructive habit of mine.  It was clear it was time to engage in some serious svadhyaya.  In yogic philosophy there guiding principles called the Yamas and the Niyamas. The Yamas are “restraints”, similar to the Ten Commandments.  They are the “shall nots.”  The Niyamas are the “shoulds,” the actions one does to align oneself with the Yamas.  Svadhyaya, self study, is the fourth Niyama.  To practice svadhyaya means to look at oneself and say “huh, that’s less than helpful. Why am I doing that?” If this sounds like modern psychotherapy, it should.  Psychotherapy is a form of svadhyaya.  (Yogic thought is blessedly broad in its scope and never says exactly what self study should look like.  It just says you need to do it.)  Svadhyaya means looking at your life, seeing the big piles of poop you’ve stepped in, acknowledging that your shoes stink and then deciding to clean it off properly.  Or as this lovely website so eloquently puts it: “It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations… to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies.”  (

My father died around this time of year sixteen years ago. He was bipolar and had been in and out of mental institutions and on and off medication for most of my life.  At the time of his death his current medication was destroying his nervous system and, under the advice of his doctor, he was trying to wean off them. In the process he slipped into a manic state, wandered off, got lost in the woods and died from exposure.

I am haunted by his death and the trauma of growing up with a mentally ill father.  He is like my own personal Leviathan, constantly thrashing around in the ocean of my psyche.  At some points he’s my playmate, a person who taught me to be brave and bold and challenge conventions. At other times he’s a monster, a fearsome creature that fills me with shame and dread. Highly intellectual yet lost in delusion, extremely funny, yet ruthlessly sardonic, loving and cruel, a religious zealot, an angry atheist, a cheating, lying SOB and a loving, caring, attentive father. In the end he was like most people, an anathema; impossible to reach and never truly understood.   

Over the past two years I have been actively engaging in a conversation with my dad through a lot of svadhyaya.  It has not been easy because, 1. phantoms are painfully silent and withholding and 2. svadhyaya is rarely enjoyable. It usually comes with a lot of resistance, confusion and tears.  Trying to parse out answers to the Daddy Mystery has left me raw and often times unbearable to be around.  There are days when my urge to flee is so bad I have to go for a run to get away from myself.  Those are the days when I wonder why I even bother doing this at all. But then, something great happens. I get a light bulb moment like this one: 

Every time something happened to my dad, he ran away.

Now, it would be stupidly simplistic of me to say that my flight response is just something I was taught, that it’s just bad parenting.  Nothing is ever that cut and dry. But this little connection has given me a piece of the puzzle and this piece has afforded me peace.  Rather than sprinting through my life with blinders on I'm starting to slow down and experience the life around me.  Yogic philosophy is constantly reiterating that this moment is ephemeral.  If you get mired in the minutia of things as you think they "should" be you will miss the beauty of what is.  This kind of thinking is easy to talk about in the abstract, but without practical application, it becomes poetry and wishful thinking. That's where svadhyaya comes in.  Svadhyaya forces you out of yourself, out of self-pity and self destruction.  It forces you to see beauty in a very clear and practical way.  

To say, “I am cured! Halleluiah! Thank you Yoga!” would be ridiculous. I’m not.  But, through svadhyaya I have curbed my flight response considerably and I grow more and more confident that I will be able to slow down even more - maybe to a fast walk or a stroll. Who knows, maybe I’ll stop all together!

But, until then I intend to keep on studying.